Waiting for the Shot
Pacific Northwest weather is always somewhat unpredictable. Many of you could probably say the same thing about the weather where you live. Sometimes everything just works to get the shot you are after. Sometimes there's just no way to get the shot unless you are willing to wait for it.
I spent this weekend around Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument here in Washington State. The decision to go there rather than elsewhere was based in large part on trying to outguess how the snow was melting in the mountains after the freaky spring and summer months we've had. While most of the United States has been sweltering with record heat, we up here in the upper left corner of the nation have been dealing with the remnants of heavy late spring snows and unusually cool summer temperatures. The snow is supposed to melt so the alpine wildflowers can bloom but it's just not been happening this year as it should. Mountain wildflowers should have peaked long ago but this year I've been forced to patiently wait for them.
Windy Ridge wildflowers at sunrise
Bad light but few clouds at Lahar
The next morning it was completely overcast
On my way toward Mount St. Helens I stopped at Mt. Rainier, an area with which I am well familiar. There were some flowers blooming at lower elevations but most of the trails both above and below Paradise were still under several feet of snow. I saw a lot of bear grass just starting to come up and avalanche lily sprouts not yet blooming. Things looked at least a month behind normal. I'll have to go back to Rainier after waiting another couple of weeks for things to melt more.
I remember visiting Mount St. Helens not long after the eruption in the early 1980's. At the time the drive was down a one-lane winding dirt road from the north. For quite a ways, it could have been any Forrest Service road in the Northwest with dense mixed forests crowding in all around, but then I came up over a ridge and got my first view of what I came for. As far as the eye could see was pure devastation. Behind me lush green, in front of me nothing but volcanic ash and flattened trees with their leaves burned off. The Windy Ridge trail at the end of the road felt like taking a walk on the moon — volcanic ash and pumice everywhere. In the intervening thirty-plus years things have progressively been coming back but estimates are that the pre-blast forest will take 200 years to fully return. Since that first trip I've marveled at the wildflowers that that have finally started to sprout up in such a harsh environment. Sometimes waiting means years.
My hope for Mount St. Helens this year was that the lack of tree canopy would allow the snow to more easily melt than what I had found at Rainier. When trying to outguess this year's weather, shade seems to be a bigger factor than simple elevation in determining the depth or presence of snow. Indeed the snow was gone at Windy Ridge and the flowers were pretty good. Sometimes waiting pays off. I did have to wait for the wind to die down though. After all, "Windy Ridge" is well named.
After a side trip to the north side of Mt. Adams only to find less snow than Mt. Rainier but no more wildflowers, I returned to Mount St. Helens. There's an area of lahar mudflows on the south side of the mountain where lupine and other wildflowers have found their niche in the rich volcanic soil deposited there. I was expecting good things from an area that has proven reliable for many photographers in recent years. Unfortunately what I found was that the weather had begun to change in a different way and the clouds were moving in after several days of clear skies. A volcano with its top lost in a cloud bank doesn't look much like a volcano. There's a phenomenon where evaporation rises along mountain slopes and condenses as clouds that hang as a cap over the peak even when few other clouds can be found, but in this case it was obvious where the problem was coming from. I could sit and watch as clouds moved in from the west, climbed the mountain and hung out. Even as some would eventually dissipate they would reliably be replaced by new ones from the west. So I spent several hours on Saturday afternoon waiting at the parking area watching as the clouds hanging over the mountain continued to change but never left. Sometimes waiting can be improved with an Amazon Kindle.
Close to sunset the cloud cover abated enough that I could actually see the rim of the volcano's crater poking through so my waiting seemed to be paying off to a degree. The location is much more a sunrise shot than a sunset one but I quickly set up and fired off a few as a safety in case the clouds were even worse in the morning. Often the cooler temperatures overnight will cut down on evaporation enough to work wonders to dissipate clouds but there are no guarantees. The forecast said "mostly sunny" but I wasn't taking chances. Sometimes waiting isn't a good idea and you need to make the most of what exists in front of you at the time.
When I got up this morning, it was obvious even with the sun still down that the cloud cover had taken a turn for the worse rather than gotten better. There weren't any stars anywhere and no moon even though it should have been full. Not a good sign but I had to find out for sure. Arriving back at the lahar parking area confirmed my suspicions that there was also no volcano. The cloud ceiling was even lower. A volcano that can't be seen at all is definitely not a good sign. No volcano, and no sunrise either. Sometimes waiting doesn't pay off but there's no way to know unless you try. There's always next year.
There's an element of skill in any well made landscape photo. But no matter how comfortable you may be with your camera and your subject matter, nature sometimes wins out. There's always a next time if you want it. Timing is everything. Dedication means hard work, but sometimes it also means you have to be willing to wait. In the end I will beat the south side of Mount St. Helens.